(Love is: accepting that his lust for sex can be a substitute for love, unless it can't, in which case you should hate the bastard, unless you love him regardless and you keep chasing him, because then you should persevere and suffer, until he gets used to you, and likes you, and confuses you, and you start to question if friendship can be a substitute for love, or WAAAAAA STOP IT!)
In Undulant Fever
, the central story revolves around a young woman, who willingly allows herself to be objectified and abused by a slightly older, attractive, emotionally damaged man. Sounds familiar? Based on a famous erotic novel and filmed by a director with roots in the "pinku" soft-porn film industry, it would be easy to mistake this (on paper, at least) for a Japanese version of Fifty Shades of Grey
. Rest assured though, that it is not.
For starters, Undulant Fever
is not based on pornographic Twilight
fan-fiction, but on the 1978 book When I Sense the Sea
by Nakazawa Kei, which details the inner turmoil of being in a mutually abusive relationship. And indeed, while there is a lot of nudity and erotic content in the film, titillation is never the name of the game. The focus here is on intimacy, and how it affects the feelings of both partners.
At the start of the film, we follow a young couple. They seem at ease with one another, responsive and happy. But then we get to see how the relationship started, how it progressed to its current state, and next where it will go from there. And we see that Emiko is driven by her obsessive love for Hiroshi, even though he is extremely closed, emotionally stunted even. Time and time again he says he's just curious about sex and doesn't like her personally. "Any woman would do, so stop following me!" he tells her to her face, multiple times. But Emiko never stops.
What follows is a slow and uneasy look at their relationship. Hiroshi is blunt and abrasive to the point of cruelty, but it's an anti-social armor he has up against everyone, not just Emiko, and he is brutally honest in a bullish way. For her part, Emiko doesn't understand why she is so poorly treated by Hiroshi, or why she nevertheless wants to be with him so badly. Seen from Emiko's viewpoint, things get pretty dark. Not only is she constantly given a cold shoulder by Hiroshi, Emiko also becomes estranged to her own mother, to the point of becoming the victim of domestic violence.
When Hiroshi's hard shell finally starts to crack, and Emiko seems to get the relationship she wants so badly, you also sense her waking up from her obsession, and unafraid to cast a cold, hard look upon the both of them.
"A cold, hard look" is actually not a bad way to sum up the film, as the moments of warmth and happiness are few and far between. Director Ando Hiroshi is a veteran of both mainstream and softporn films, but he uses his expertise in the latter mostly as a guide to what NOT to show, preventing the film from sliding into Skinemax territories.
And instead of getting his actors all hot and bothered, Ando manages to coax strong, natural performances out of them. Ikematsu Sôsuke impresses as the stony Hiroshi, but this is truly Ichikawa Yui's film, front and center. Having been a swimsuit model in the past, this could easily have been just a showcase of her physique, but instead it is her portrayal of the slowly maturing Emiko which anchors the film. Whether we see her as the troubled lover in the beginning, the confused student in the flashback, or the questioning woman later on, she is fully believable in what is often a daring and demanding role.
Yet for all its strong points, a riveting film it is not. At two hours length, Undulant Fever
is long, and a tad too slow perhaps, as at times the story keeps showing only just enough progress to keep people from falling asleep. But with its emphasis on relationships and what people emotionally expect from each other, it sure is an admirable film. Undulant Fever
may be about love and sex, but it sure is neither soft, nor porn. Take THAT, Fifty Shades of Grey
had its International Premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where audiences awarded the film a not-bad rating of 3.4 out of 5.